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‘It’s getting ridiculous:’ Rail workers rally for paid sick leave

Galesburg rail rally on the public square.
Jane Carlson
Tri States Public Radio
Rail workers and supporters gathered on the public square in Galesburg to rally for paid sick leave and better work-life balance.

Rail workers and supporters rallied Tuesday in Washington D.C. and in communities across the country, including in Galesburg.

The Galesburg rally at noon on the public square drew a couple dozen people in rainy, cold, and windy weather.

They stood under umbrellas – and in solidarity with rail workers who say the government imposed a contract on them to avert a strike.

“So we get a tentative agreement but what that tentative agreement did not include and what we wanted to bargain for further, and possibly strike over, was paid sick days and work-life balance improvements in this industry,” said Bob Guy, Illinois legislative director for SMART-TD, the largest rail union in the country.

Guy said all Class I railroads now use some form of precision-scheduled railroading.

Over the last five years, that has reduced the number of employees – and put a higher demand on remaining employees’ time.

That has led to attendance policies that Guy said penalize workers for being sick.

That’s put a higher demand on remaining employees’ time, and led to attendance policies that he says penalize workers for being sick.

“So you have to choose between going to work sick, or staying home and possibly getting points, attendance points,” Guy said.

Workers and supporters came to the rally from near and far, including Matt Wright, a rail worker from Collinsville.

For Wright, paid sick leave is one of the top issues.

He said railroad companies are setting billion-dollar record profits every year.

“I guess they’re just holding on tight to that money. It’s a small percentage of their income to take care of their workforce, and would actually boost their ability to hire,” Wright said.

In Knox County, BNSF Railway is the largest employer, but longtime workers say the culture of working for the railroad has changed.

Wes Ekstedt is a BNSF conductor and an officer for SMART-TD Local 195 in Galesburg, who has been working for the railroad for about 12 years.

Ekstedt said up until February, they had five weekdays and two weekend days off a month. “They had less people because of their cuts, they wanted to keep us here, to move more trains, so what they did is cut us down to one or two days a month, now,” he said.

Ekstedt’s daughter was born earlier this year, after BNSF’s new Hi-Viz” policy was in place.

Under that attendance policy, workers get 30 points in their career -- and Ekstedt lost four of them taking off a weekend day when she was born.

“The only way I could get those four points back was to either work four weekends on call, in addition to what I’m already on call, or work 14 days straight on call,” Ekstedt said. “So with that kind of penalty, just to see the birth of my daughter, it’s getting ridiculous.”

Ekstedt is also involved with the fight to keep two-person crews in the cabs of freight trains, as railroad companies push to eliminate the second person.

Tri States Public Radio produced this story.  TSPR relies on financial support from our readers and listeners in order to provide coverage of the issues that matter to west central Illinois, southeast Iowa, and northeast Missouri. As someone who values the content created by TSPR's news department please consider making a financial contribution.

Jane Carlson is TSPR's regional reporter.